Caldwell started covering the Black Panther Party in the Bay Area in the fall of 1968. “The very first story that I wrote about the Black Panthers was about guns,” Caldwell recalled in a 2006 interview with Frontline. “I thought it was my great reporting. Later I realized they wanted me to see the guns, because they knew if I saw this that I would print it in my story and it would be published in the New York Times, and then everybody in the country would know that they were prepared, on some level, to back up what they were talking about.” Click here to view Caldwell's “Black Panthers: Young Revolutionaries with Guns,” September 6, 1968.
Caldwell was visited by the FBI shortly after this story was published: “When I wrote the first story, I came back to New York, and now I believe somebody in the newspaper called the FBI and told them that I had come back, because I was at my desk five minutes, and the receptionist called and said, ‘There’s two gentlemen out here to see you.’ I go out; it’s two agents from the FBI. They want to know more about these guns that I wrote about. They want to know more information. I told them, ‘Everything I have is in the newspaper.’ They said, ‘That’s not good enough,’ and they challenged me.”
Throughout 1969, Caldwell published several more pieces on the Black Panthers in the New York Times, including stories on the Panthers free breakfast program (“Black Panthers Serving Youngsters a Diet of Food and Politics,” June 15, 1969) and changes in the group’s style, tone, and language (“Panthers: They Are Not the Same Organization,” July 27, 1969).
In the 2006 Frontline interview, Caldwell recalled that the FBI demands became more incessant during these months:
Question: How did it get to the point where the FBI came to you and said, “We want [your tapes and notes]”?
There came a period, after I was covering the Panthers maybe about 12, 14, 16 months—I’m not sure—where the FBI called me and asked if I would have regular meetings informally with agents. They said: “We know that you’re over there all the time and you’re seeing what’s happening, and you’re all around with them. We’d like you just to tell us what’s going on, be our eyes and ears on the inside.”
I told them of course I couldn’t do that; “I can’t even have this conversation with you.” But they persisted in it. They would call The New York Times bureau almost every day in San Francisco. ... Then one day they told this woman ... who was answering the phone: “Tell Earl Caldwell we’re not playing with him. He doesn’t want to tell it to us, he doesn’t want to talk to us, he can tell it in court.” This was like on a Friday. On a Monday, they ... came back with a subpoena for me to appear before a federal grand jury, and they wanted all of my notebooks and tape recordings and anything else I had accumulated over that period, about 16 months of reporting on the Black Panthers.
Q: And you said no?
Oh, absolutely. ... I began to create a little file in the back of The New York Times office, a private file, apart from The New York Times file. ... stuff that I considered to be very sensitive, and I don’t want anyone messing with it. ... I had to destroy a lot of this [very sensitive] material before the agent came back, before the marshal came back with the subpoena. ...
Q: Why did you feel like you had to destroy material?
If ... it wound up in the hands of the FBI, people were going to say to me, “That was the intention all along.” There was a virtual war going on by this time, escalating between the Black Panthers and the authorities. ...
Q: Did [you] even consider the idea of turning over your material?
No, I never would have done that. It wasn’t even possible to think about doing that. ... There was no way that we as a generation of black journalists—we were not going to do that.
Caldwell’s case became an important test of a journalist’s right to protect confidential sources. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in his favor, but this decision was overturned when the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court (where it was combined with two other cases as Branzburg v. Hayes). Justice Byron White, writing for the 5-4 majority, argued that “compelling” and “paramount” state interests required reporters to disclose confidential information to grand juries and that this did not violate the First Amendment.
- New York Times advertisement in New York Amsterdam News highlighting Caldwell and other Times journalists who covered black history and culture. February 14, 1970.
- “Black Journalists Back Reporter,” New York Amsterdam News, February 21, 1970
- “Black Newsmen Vow Resistance,” New York Times, February 14, 1970